This week’s Stylist contains an article about the new ‘power maternity leave’ that is, if the Telegraph is to be believed, which of course it never is, becoming something of a trend. On the relaxing break that we all know constitutes maternity leave, high-flying women are getting bored with ‘sitting around watching daytime TV while your baby sleeps’ and becoming ‘mumpreneurs’, setting up their own small businesses at the same time. ‘A period away from work’, Stylist tells us, ‘can be hugely positive – time to learn a language, take up a hobby’. According to psychologist Marisa Peer, ‘baby brain’ is a myth – ‘it’s mere tiredness’. Famously well-rested as new mothers are, they are not wasting even a second of their valuable ‘time off’, and are using it to write business plans and secure financial backing while their children sleep.
I don’t have children, so I speak from a position of relative ignorance, but I am friends with women who do and, when their children were born, they didn’t look like they were casting around for a new hobby, to be honest. It looked like they were trying to cram several basic activities – having a shower, hanging out the washing, replying to emails – into tiny pockets of available time. Their days seemed to be filled with the enormity of being entirely responsible for another human life, rather than the notion that this might be a great opportunity to start learning Portuguese or take up the violin. They did not describe their sleep deprivation as ‘mere tiredness’. Still, what do I know? Turns out they were all starting up vintage-inspired stationery businesses when they said they were changing nappies.
As the cost of childcare makes the headlines, so too does the issue of whether it is possible to combine motherhood with fulfilling work. The solution implied by Stylist is that women should stay at home and look after the kids – just turn over £250,000 a year while they’re at it. They are not real entrepreneurs, after all, but ‘mumpreneurs’ and all four of the featured women say they felt they couldn’t maintain their previous line of employment while having children. Should it concern us that a woman feels she can’t be a policewoman and have a child, when presumably policemen don’t feel the same way? Stylist thinks not – she’s just set up her own coconut yoghurt company! The ‘mumpreneurs’ imply they did the majority of the childcare while running the business: ‘I had so many meetings – I took Summer along in a backpack!’ (One hopes she doesn’t literally mean ‘in a backpack.’) The businesses that chosen for the feature – maternity sportswear, vintage-inspired wedding dresses, Mumsnet – seem to have ‘stick with what you know’ written all over them, and appear synonymous with a certain type of middle class lifestyle. And what if you’re a single mum? Could you support yourself on maternity payments alone and somehow find the resources to start your own knit-your-own owl collective?
As personal stories, the mumpreneurs’ are great, inspiring and I wish them well. I am delighted that motherhood has given them a new perspective, allowing them to fulfil their passion and still spend time with the kids, but I do not think their experiences reflect those of most women. Describing them as a ‘trend’ seems unhelpful to say the least. Is the solution to working motherhood that we all leave our jobs and set up cupcake factories? I can’t see it.
The Stylist piece peddles the myth that childcare in itself isn’t hard work, when the reverse seems to be blindingly, obviously true. ‘Taking time off’, ‘career breaks’, ‘having it all’ – we all seem to agree that mums are having a whale of a time. Mothers who don’t work are ‘lucky’ because their husband can support them on a salary; mothers who do are ‘lucky’ to be able to pursue their careers. Office work and childcare – such treats! What lucky ladies! How have we managed to sustain this illusion that women are basically just lazing about, whether they are raising a child, earning a living or both? (Also, why are they defined using the crappy portmanteau term ‘mumpreneurs’? Not only does the pun not work, but also new fathers somehow manage to escape the indignity of being labelled ‘career daddies’)
One of the reasons that maternity leave is painted as a less busy time is presumably because women don’t want child-rearing to be considered the only thing of which they are capable, and, judging from the recent reports on childcare, ‘women in the workplace’ isn’t something we’ve got sewn up yet. But denying that motherhood is hard work doesn’t seem to be the answer, nor is it particularly comforting to think that if you feel have to leave your job, you can always set up your own organic evening-glove business or whatever. One new mother told me recently that the worst thing about motherhood was ‘feeling inadequate’. I am not sure the Stylist article helped so much with that.